Adam Levenberg: Do You Need a Consultant?
Our frank friend, Adam Levenberg, is a former development executive who consults on feature film projects for top producers, actors, and screenwriters. His first book, The Starter Screenplay — the ultimate resource to help you determine “what should I write next?” — is available now at www.thestarterscreenplay.com, and you can learn more about his consulting here.
“Am I wasting my time trying to be a screenwriter?” That is the most common question I get after reading an unrepresented writer’s spec.
Have you ever wondered this yourself?
We haven’t met yet, but I can suggest a path to finding out. Hire a good consultant. Even better, hire a great one. They exist.
I should point out this is a controversial topic. Some claim screenwriting is free and you’re wasting your money hiring anyone to help with the process. Really? A single university class can cost $3,000, contests have entry fees, and have you ever seen Final Draft being handed out on a street corner?
And what about time? For many, it takes over 1,000 hours to write a spec. That time could be otherwise spent with friends, children, at the gym, or just relaxing after an ass-kicking full-time occupation. Consider this: How much would you be paid if you’d earned minimum wage while writing your last spec?
The 99.5% Club
Screenplays are simple stories, equivalent to about 40 pages of a novel. Dozens of universities feature courses or entire degrees on the subject and tens of thousands of writers take a crack at screenplays every year. So why is it that over 99.5% of them fail to deliver a movie?
It comes down to the process of writing. Most people learn how to write a screenplay, write a script, and are satisfied with the product because it represents 100% of their current capacity. Then they push it on the industry, are rebuffed, and move on to new specs without ever addressing why the last one didn’t work. It’s a vicious cycle.
If you’re trying to lose weight, you have a scale. If you’re training for a marathon, you know what place you came in and how long it took you to finish. Screenwriters on the other hand get mixed signals. They send out queries and feel good about free options to no-name producers. Or they win contests on specs that aren’t competent enough to be represented by an agency, let alone sell to a studio. And that’s before you count the suspicious number of semi-finalists. (What’s up with that, is it like little league where everyone gets a trophy?) Other popular blind alleys include many pitchfests, conferences, and companies that sell a version of coverage that exists only for unrepresented writers. Needless to say, the bar is quite low to get a recommend and if you don’t, you need a lot more help than their comments will provide.
All aspiring screenwriters, even prodigies, need direction and feedback on their material to address the gaps in their education. If this wasn’t true, we’d see many writers get “discovered” and immediately sell multiple specs, which never happens. Writers always receive extensive guidance from agents, managers, and producers (or a combination thereof) over several drafts before that first spec goes out.
When I opened my consulting services to unrepped screenwriters, I knew it was necessary to replicate this process of industry development, where notes are delivered along with in-depth discussion in person or over the phone. Blake Snyder understood this too, as he offered that kind of service that continues today with the Master Cats he mentored at Save the Cat!
While I am absolutely certain that any writer can benefit from a great consultant, it’s important you are careful about who you hire.
What Should You Look For in a Consultant?
1) Avoid the following: Consultants who also have a fee to rewrite your script and websites that don’t tell you exactly who will be reading your material. Watch out for the “monthly contest” gimmick or any site that guarantees they’ll market your script or logline as part of the consulting package. And avoid overall packages with multiple steps.
2) Make sure you have the ability to follow up with questions a few days later. Your head will be swimming by the end of the call; it’s exciting, sometimes heated, and a lot of information will be flying at you. After the dust settles and you review the notes again, you’re likely to have questions.
4) If it makes you more comfortable, talk to the consultant first and get a feel for if it’s a good match.
5) Your consultant should have the ability to deliver your script, if it deserves representation, to agents and managers. It’s too easy for consultants to claim your script is “ready” if they don’t have to back it up with action. Plus, if they’re so removed they don’t know anyone in the industry, why would you listen to their advice in the first place?
6) A reasonable price. A few hundred dollars is appropriate, anything over $1000 should raise red flags. As a new writer, your issues are basic. Paying a few thousand dollars for feedback is equivalent to having a CAT scan for a broken finger — start with an x-ray. If a few hundred sounds like a lot, consider you’ll advance more from a solid 1-on-1 consult than you would taking another multi-week screenwriting class. And it’s still less money than those general education courses you slept through in college.
7) The ability to consult on an outline. Most consultants will lower their price to discuss an outline or beat sheet. If you haven’t started writing yet, this conversation will help you identify if you’ve got a winning concept or some enormous problems to solve before you invest three to six months of your life on a first draft.
Since opening my business to unrepresented screenwriters, I’ve been hired by people from all over the planet. The one generalization I can make is that many of them are experts in their respective fields. They know the best way to learn how to do anything, especially when it comes to troubleshooting, is to hire another expert.
In my life, I’ve hired a CPA to do my taxes, a web designer to create my site, took the Princeton Review to up my SAT score, flew to St. Louis for eye surgery, and got a cinema degree from USC. Then I worked with one of the top kettlebell instructors in LA and six months later, I was swinging 90-lb. weights through the air. How many experts have you relied on in your life?
There are great screenplay consultants out there, even if they’re few and far between. If you don’t have an agent or manager, I promise, there are very good reasons why. Find out what those reasons are and work to address them. You spend too much time writing to give up before you learn to deliver a screenplay that qualifies as a movie. Once you’re at that point, you’d be shocked at how quickly the doors of the industry fly open.
If you’ve got a completed script on your shelf, do your research. Find a consultant you feel good about, take the leap, hire them, and see what you learn. What have you got to lose?
Next week: Guest blog by novelist R.L. LaFevers